The Ultimate Student Guide to Navigating the Writing MOOC
So you are not a confident writer, but you want to take a MOOC that includes several papers. Can you survive? Or maybe you have college plans but writing is your biggest weakness. Can a writing MOOC help?
As someone who has taught writing at the college level for more than 20 years, I have been asking myself similar questions. I have taught, and enjoyed teaching, hybrid courses. I routinely provide feedback electronically. But I was curious about whether writing can be scaled up to the MOOC level. So over the last few months, I registered for several courses in which writing is a major component, and I think I can say the answer to both questions is “Yes.” But a very qualified “Yes.”
Pedagogically, writing instruction and assessment in MOOCs is not as advanced as the technology. The medium doesn’t yet allow for many best practices from writing classes to transfer. While many instructors have recorded excellent lectures about a variety of topics, writing is not something you can just learn by watching lecture.
The core pedagogy of most college courses is that writing is a “process.” Papers are done in multiple drafts with each draft assessed and given feedback. The student then uses that feedback to revise and craft a more effective paper. Most MOOCs also assign papers in drafts, but this is where the similarity ends. The logistics of a massive online class are simply not conducive to an effective feedback process. It is clear instructors are trying to address this issues; some innovative methods have been developed to facilitate process-based writing. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.
So the “Yes” is qualified. You can get a lot of out of one of these writing MOOCs. Just go in with your eyes open; be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the model. Most importantly, be very proactive.
Writing MOOCs vs. MOOCs that require writing
For the purposes of this article, I want to differentiate between writing classes and writing-intensive classes. The former are classes about writing. In that case, students study writing and write in order to become better writers. The latter are classes in which writing is a means to explore other content. In that case, students are asked to write papers about this content. Writing classes teach you how to write better; writing-intensive classes presume you know how to write.
If you are a less experienced writer, and plan to take MOOCs for credit, consider taking a writing class first. In many courses, written papers are much, if not all, of the grade. If you don’t have the necessary writing skills, this will make successful completion more difficult.
A composition MOOC can be an excellent guide. These classes cover the same material as traditional college writing classes and provide a good introduction to both collegiate standards and expectations.
Keep in mind, however, that there are different levels of writing classes. More importantly, while traditional colleges assess and place students in classes that matches their skill levels, with MOOCs, you have to self-place. Accurate self-placement can make a huge difference in what you get out of a course.
Choosing the right writing MOOC
Writing classes generally fall into one of the three following main categories, while writing-intensive classes will assume you have some mastery of all of the following:
- Basic Writing – This is often a non-credit class in college settings. It focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of writing, with much of the work helping students to improve at the sentence and paragraph level. One recent example of this type of class being offered on Coursera is Crafting an Effective Writer: Tools of the Trades, given by Mt. San Jancinto College. This is a short, five-week course, with assignments generally no longer than a paragraph.
- College Writing 1 – These resemble the traditional writing classes that most college students take in their first semester. They presume a student has the writing ability covered in Basic Writing. The primary focus of feedback in this type of class is on structure and argument quality. These are not grammar classes. A couple examples of this on Coursera include English Composition 1: Achieving Expertise from Duke and First Year Composition 2.0 from the Georgia Institute of Technology. These classes also include a component on visual literacy.
- College Writing 2 – There is some variety in the types of classes taught under this label. Different schools emphasize different skills to develop. However, more often than not the class will focus on research and on ensuring that students can support a claim with information from outside sources. Writing II: Rhetorical Composing from Ohio State on Coursera is one such example of this type of class. Sometimes a more advanced composition class will focus on a particular kind of writing, such as Writing In the Sciences.
[pullquote position=”right”]The most important thing to remember about self-placement is to be honest with yourself about your abilities. Don’t place yourself too high because you want to skip right to the class you want to take. [/pullquote]Similarly, don’t place yourself too low and end up bored by material you don’t need.
One important side note: if you do take one of these courses and have additional college plans, make sure you hold on to everything you write. Currently schools generally do not accept MOOCs for transfer credit (partially for the reasons I discuss in this essay). However, many schools are moving toward skill-based assessment. If you can provide evidence that you possess the necessary writing skills, even if you can’t get college credit for the course, you may get a requirement waived or receive a more advanced placement. Get into the habit of keeping a portfolio of all of your work.
Peer review in a writing MOOC
This brings us to the larger pedagogical issue – one that affects both writing classes and writing-intensive classes – that of the feedback itself.
In most traditional writing or writing-intensive classes, instructors provide the feedback or perhaps split the responsibility with other students. As a student, you have the opportunity to hear how your work is received by your peers and by a professional who has had training in the discipline. Just as importantly, the feedback is consistent. The same people see all drafts of your paper. They know what they recommended on the previous draft, so they can read any additional draft in context. The feedback you receive is generally the most important part of the class.
In the MOOC world, due to the huge number of students in a class, the only feedback you can expect to get is from peers. There is simply no way for instructors to personally respond to each and every paper. Even more problematic, due to logistics, there is no consistency to who is providing the feedback. The second group of readers will likely be different from readers of the first draft, and they will probably not see the earlier comments.
Even more interesting: peer reviews can factor into grades in a MOOC – in some cases significantly. (In one advanced class I took, peer-reviewed papers were the entire grade.) I was somewhat bemused to discover I could “fail” a fellow student’s paper and this would count toward their grade. (The grade for a paper is the average of scores from all reviewers.) While I have training and experience in the discipline, most students in these classes do not.
Put bluntly: MOOCs are essentially crowd sourcing grading responsibility to students who have not yet proven mastery, or even understanding, of the material! At best this is problematic. Crowd sourcing offers intriguing possibilities in a MOOC context (as John Duhring discusses in “Extracurriculars: Do Massive Courses Make Digital Sharecropping More Efficient?”) However, the communal creation of knowledge, where the more people you have, the more knowledge you potentially have, is very different than this communal grading process.
While crowd sourcing is taking place at a macro level – thousands of students are indeed grading thousands of essays – at the micro level, each individual essay gets 2-4 peer reviews, with no guarantee that any of the reviews will be of quality. While I use peer reviews in every class I teach, I monitor peer feedback, on top of providing extensive feedback myself. No such quality control exists in MOOCs.
An unpleasant example
As a case study, let me take you through an experience I had in Composition 1: Achieving Expertise from Duke University.
The initial assignment was to write a critical evaluation of a published article. We had to critique some aspect of the piece and support our claim with cited material from the essay. My first draft was well-received by my three critics. (Probably better than it should have been.) However, except for recommending that I provide a bit more summary material to help the reader understand the article, they provided no real direction. One even said my paper was “perfect.” (It was not!) I revised as much as I could despite the lack of guidance.
That second draft was then ripped apart by an entirely different reviewer who didn’t see the previous feedback and who gave it a very low score. While I think his or her comments were well intentioned, I was surprised to learn that despite teaching in higher education for 20 years I a) don’t know what a critique is and b) don’t understand citation. While there were a couple of good critical observations that I wished I had received for my first draft, the overall feedback was generally misguided; my critic railed at me for not understanding the assignment, when it was clear that he or she is the one who didn’t have the understanding.
[pullquote position=”right”]As a writing instructor, I was somewhat horrified by this entire situation. I was already disappointed that I had provided several students extensive feedback on their first drafts, then couldn’t find out if they used any of it. [/pullquote](The problem here is that if only 5-10% of all students complete a class, it is nearly impossible to maintain any consistency. For all I know the students I reviewed all dropped the class.) Then I was asked to score a new set of papers, but I had no idea what sort of feedback these students had already received. Taking all these things together, I elected to stop participating in the class. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
Having reviewed discussion forums in several classes, I know I am not the only one who has had an experience like this. Complaints about scores from peers is common in MOOC discussion forums. Granted, it is impossible to know how many of these complaints are the student being defensive and how many are cases where another student actually provided poor feedback.
In addition to disappointment with the scores, in the several classes I looked at, students also complained about receiving little, or no, feedback. It was not clear whether the critics simply didn’t know how to provide effective feedback, didn’t recognize that they should or simply didn’t care. Regardless, inconsistent or non-existent feedback clearly affected the learning of many students in these classes. (This is another reason to take a writing class first. You learn to provide effective feedback on papers in these courses.)
How to benefit from a writing MOOC
So if you are planning to take a MOOC that involves writing, be aware that this is the world in which you will be working. Also be aware – these problems are not deal killers. There are ways to at least partially compensate for the issues. Learning is still very much possible; it just requires some extra effort on your part.
A few strategies to consider:
- Join a small group meet-up, either in person or online. In the first weeks of the classes, people post on the forums looking for other local people willing to meet live and discuss their work. If you live in an area that has a sufficient concentration of students to do this, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. First of all, the investment someone makes in a group probably ensures they are serious and are more likely to provide solid feedback. Second, they will see all drafts you write so will know what feedback you have been working with and what changes you have made. Their comments will be in context. Third, having a live group discussion often brings out observations people don’t see on their own, and they reinforce the most helpful comments. Fourth, they can offer a reality check if you happen to get a really destructive peer review. If you can’t join a physical meet up, check the forums for virtual groups.
- If you join a group, live or virtual, BE COMMITTED. It is easy to slack off in a MOOC because you are not paying for it. But for a group to work, all participants need to maintain their level of commitment. You might have the best of intentions, but if you drop out, you are affecting not only yourself but others in the group.
- If you chose not to join a group, use the discussion forums. Post drafts of your essays, ideally before you hand them in, and see what people have to say. While this can be equally hit-and-miss, you may connect with a couple people whose feedback you trust. Cultivate those connections. And return the favor! Don’t be selfish and ask others to evaluate your work while you are unwilling to look at their.
- Even if you are an inexperienced writer, have confidence in your ability to provide feedback. Yes, you might not be able to diagnose technical issues in a formal essay, but you can give valuable feedback with comments as simple as, “I was very confused by your essay. I didn’t understand the second paragraph.” And don’t assume your lack of understanding is your fault. It is up to the writer to make his or her ideas clear.
- Many classes now have video “hangouts” on Google or YouTube where instructors and teaching assistants answer questions or lead workshops using actual student papers. This is a rare exception to the rule that students in MOOCs don’t get feedback from the professor, so when they ask for volunteers to participate in these activities, volunteer! While it may be intimidating to have your paper critiqued in front of your fellow students, the experience can be invaluable. The real problem here: only a handful of students can actually be picked out of the hundreds who may volunteer. So while instructors are trying to come up with ways to reach out, the scale of the classes continues to prove problematic.
The quality the qualified “yes” depends on
Reading the discussion forums, it is clear to me a LOT of students are getting a LOT out of these classes. But in almost all cases, they are doing more than just completing assignments. They are taking the initiative, utilizing support systems inside the class and creating additional ones outside it. In fact, recent research backs up this observation. Check out “Effective Habits of Power Users” to learn more about how successful MOOC students proactively use the discussion forums and engage with their peers.
That may be the most important thing to recognize here. Yes, you can benefit from a writing MOOC. But like in any class, success is ultimately up to you. After all, the instructor can’t make make you a good writer. Only you can.